A chefs view on waiters. the real story by Mark Best & why it’s a career

written by Dominic Rolfe

When Mark Best develops a new recipe, there’s one group of people he needs to persuade about the dish before all others. And it’s not the gaggle of scribblers who descend to review his food. It’s his front of house team. “I have to convince them first,” says Best, “I have to get them believing in the dish as much as I do. And it’s not just training them or giving them the tasting notes. It’s about them having an intrinsic understanding of what I’m trying to achieve and then communicating that to the customer.”

The 2010 Good Food Guide Chef of the Year and chef and owner of the lauded Marque restaurant as well as Pei Modern in Sydney and Melbourne, Best knows that front of house is a critical element in a restaurant’s success. “A patron’s restaurant experience can pretty much live or die on the front of house experience,” says Best. “I’ve seen some pretty ordinary food on plates and those places can be extraordinarily busy just through the sheer force of personality of that front of house. Generally the other way, no matter how good the food is, if the service is poor, then it’s a no win.”

Best recalls an epiphanic moment that helped shape his view of the value of top line front of house staff. It was at Alain Passard’s restaurant, L’Arpége in Paris. And it was the first time he had dined in a three Michelin Star establishment. “We were pretty wet behind the ears,” says Best, “and after things going nowhere with a junior member of staff, a senior member came over and basically calmed us down and made us feel completely relaxed and like we belonged there. He just assessed that we were out of our depth and took over without being patronising. That’s a real art.”

So what makes a great front of house person? For Best, he believes people need to be part sage, part psychologist with a drill sergeant major underneath. “So you’re probably looking for people with some fast twitch muscle fibre and a modicum of intelligence,” says Best, “If you’ve got those two things you’re well on the way to being a good front of house.”

“And I like people with a fresh attitude,” he says, “There’s a fairly high burnout rate and there are people who have been interfacing with customers far too long and they shouldn’t have been doing it anyway. I don’t want anyone who’s got that degree of cynicism that’s built up over time. I want people to love the customers and not just for the tips, I want them to intrinsically want to serve.”

Best believes that all good restaurants love training people. And people who are willing to learn as well as deal with the daily drudgery that attends all jobs. “You get a greenhorn in and they’ll wash about 10 million glasses and 100 times their bodyweight in cutlery before they even get in front a customer,” says Best, “It’s just about getting a thorough understanding of what they’re there for and what they’re part of.”

“It also teaches them the Zen part of the job where each day is a new performance, each day the customers destroy the set that you have to rebuild and you have to do that every single day and every single service. When you truly love the hospitality industry, every day is exciting.”

As the hospitality industry expands at an exponential rate, Best thinks that notions around working on the floor of a restaurant need to change. “I think that it’s seen almost as a failure if you’re a waiter and that is a completely wrong perception,” he says, “I think that continual promotion of front of house as a career is a good thing. It can be an extraordinary career for the right people.”
There is, however, one thing that Best doesn’t think will work in making front of house staff the new restaurant rock stars. And that’s a spin-off of the MasterChef series. “MasterWaiter doesn’t quite do it,” he says. “not least because you need to be seriously careful how you say that!”

Mark Best is one of our young chef judges

If you are a waiter, you should consider applying this year. Applications close 12 April 2015

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